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Landmark working group on the health and human rights of women, children and adolescents meets in Geneva

A group of champions and experts met in Geneva this week to reaffirm the urgency of putting human rights at the heart of global efforts to improve the health of women, children and adolescents – including the poorest, and those living in conflict zones and as refugees.

“At a time when a record number of people are displaced by wars, disasters and climate change, and many more are unable to access basic health services, we need to reaffirm a basic principle,” said the group’s co-chair, former President Halonen of Finland. “All people are entitled to dignity and human rights, regardless of sex, gender, age, race, religion or any other factor. This includes their right to health, as signed onto by every country in the world.”

The High Level Working Group on the Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents was announced last year by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The group responds to the demand of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health to leave no one behind by rallying political support for a human rights based approach to health. It comes at a critical juncture time when many rights, especially sexual and reproductive rights, are being challenged.

Co-chaired by former President of Finland, Tarja Halonen and leading human rights expert and member of The Elders, Hina Jilani, the group also includes former heads of state, current ministers of health and development, and renowned health and human rights experts. Dr Denis Mukwege, known for his work defending the health and rights of survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, serves as the group’s rapporteur.

“Women, children and adolescents often face discrimination on account of their sex and age, and are excluded from decisions that directly impact their health and lives,” said Jilani. “We must make a stronger case that a rights-based approach to health is not only the right thing to do, but the most effective way to reach those who have been left behind.”

The Working Group will issue its report this spring with recommendations on priority actions to defend and advance health and human rights of women, children and adolescents. The meeting in Geneva included members of a technical advisory group of leading health and human rights experts, UN Special Rapporteurs on health and violence against women, and representatives from key human rights treaty bodies and UN health agencies. A half-day dialogue was also held with civil society to hear their views on both the content and the process for the report.

“The Working Group is unique in interlocking the hands of health and human rights,” said Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General of WHO. “I am confident that this group will also lay the foundation for better use of existing human rights frameworks and instruments to advance people’s right to health.”

In recent years, WHO and OHCHR have jointly published technical guidance for countries on how to implement a rights-based approach to reduce maternal and child deaths. However, the Working Group is the first of its kind that will present its final report and recommendations to the leading global governance institutions for both health and human rights, namely the World Health Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

“We must speak with one voice,” said Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Human rights are not abstract concepts. They are both powerful statements of our shared humanity, and practical tools to make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Members of the Working Group

  • Tarja Halonen, Former President, Finland (co-chair)
  • Hina Jilani, Member of The Elders, Pakistan (co-chair)
  • Denis Mukwege, Gynecologist, Democratic Republic of Congo (rapporteur)
  • Aminata Toure, Former Prime Minister, Senegal
  • Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister for International Development and la Francophonie, Canada
  • Rosy Akbar, Minister for Health and Medical Services, Fiji
  • Cristina Lustemberg, Vice-Minister of Health, Uruguay
  • Natasha Despoja, Former Gender Ambassador, Australia
  • Richard Horton, Editor of the Lancet, United Kingdom

 Technical Advisory Group

  • Pascale Allotey, Professor of Public Health at the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Monash University
  • Maha Taysir Barakat, Director General of the Health Authority Abu Dhabi, United Arab EmiratesCanada
  • Zulfiqar Bhutta, Co-Director of the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health, and the Founding Director of the Center of Excellence in Women and Child Health at the Aga Khan University
  • Lynn P. Freedman, Professor of Population and Family Health at CUMC, Director, Averting Maternal Death and Disability Program, Columbia University, USA
  • Sofia Gruskin, Director, Program on Global Health & Human Rights, University of Southern California
  • Elly Leemhuis, Senior Advisor, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands


– World Health Organization and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights –